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Upstate host family of Ukrainian girl worries about her well-being

This is Sofia, pictured in the Wheeler's yard last summer.
Lisa Wheeler
This is Sofia, pictured in the Wheeler's yard last summer.

Perhaps one of the overlooked or little-known parts of the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine are the orphanages.  WAER News caught up with a Rochester area host family that’s worried about a 12-year-old girl named Sofia that they hope to adopt.

The Wheeler family began reaching out to a hosting agency in Ukraine almost a year ago. It wasn’t long before Sofia came to them in late June for a ten week stay. Lisa Wheeler says Sofia loves music and the outdoors.

"She is a spitfire. She was full of energy, spunk."

Lisa, her husband, and their two teen age children from Ethiopia immediately fell in love with her. They all enjoyed a vacation to Florida before she had to return to Ukraine by the end of summer. But then, Wheeler says Sofia wanted to come back around Christmas.

"They actually have a choice in Ukraine whether they want to be part of a hosting organization or not and want to come. Even with adoption, they have a choice if they want to be adopted, and they ask the children, which I think is really cool."

After a four week stay, Sofia had to leave again. The Wheeler’s gave Sofia a Trac phone to take home to Ukraine and hooked her up with Skype. Wheeler says Sofia called from the orphanage, sometimes several times a day, occasionally in the middle of the night. But it wasn’t long before Sofia was somehow logged out of Skype. Then Russia invaded. She’s knows Sofia is safe, but not much more.

"I'm hoping in the coming weeks that someone can log her back in and we can see that sweet face again. It's good to know she's safe, but I do miss hearing her voice and seeing her face. It just gives me that energy to continue fighting for her."

Naturally, Wheeler would prefer Sofia ride out the war here, where it’s safe.

"Doing everything legally, the way they want to do it. Just to have them in the care of people and families that they love and have come to know and feel safe with. They're all together right now, so she still has that familiarity, and that gives me peace. But we don't know how long this is going to be."

One day, Wheeler received an email. It was from Sofia. She had found the address they used to set up the Skype account.

"So I don't know how she did it," Wheeler said with a laugh. "She typed 'mama' and a bunch of other letters. It didn't make sense to a lot of people, but it made sense to me. It just gave me so much joy that day."

Wheeler says she hasn’t heard from her since, though she’s emailed Sofia messages and photos.

Sofia’s story is one of many, and Wheeler hopes the US and Ukrainian governments understand that there are families here willing to care for the children and keep them safe during, and perhaps after, the war.

"It's a crisis. There are so many children who are alone. We worry because a child comes from so much trauma already. People have been reaching out to me, 'how can I help? Can I host? Can I open up my home.'"

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at